SHANGHAI (AFP) - The head of the Russian Orthodox Church held a service in a historic Shanghai church on Wednesday, its first in more than half a century, as worshippers said they hoped the building would be returned to them.
Patriarch Kirill, visiting China for the first time, held the two and a half hour ceremony in the blue-domed Russian Orthodox Mission Church, which dates back to the 1930s when the city had a sizeable Russian community.
Dressed in a red and yellow robe, the Patriarch bowed to hundreds of worshippers including women in headscarves and children wearing their best clothes, as a choir sang in the upper tier of the building.
"For half a century, no one has heard the sounds of a religious service in this church," said Michail Drozdov of the Russian Club in Shanghai.
The church - officially Shanghai's Russian Orthodox cathedral - has not hosted religious activities since 1962, according to Chinese academics. It is now used as an art gallery, having once been a machine shop.
Communist-ruled China exercises strict control over religion, requiring followers to worship in state-approved churches.
The Russian Orthodox faith is not among China's five officially-recognised religions, but the government allows followers to gather at the Russian Consulate in Shanghai for worship.
The worshippers at Wednesday's service, largely foreigners from eastern Europe, said they hoped for the return of the church, or at least greater access.
"There is hope," said Russian student Ira Pererva. "It was talked about at the highest levels but there is no result."
Shanghai restored the church in the former French concession in 1988, but in the process destroyed the gold Cyrillic writing and religious icons on the walls, preservationists say.
"Before, it was terrible," said another worshipper, a Ukrainian resident of Shanghai who asked not to be named. "We always hope it can be returned."
But the Shanghai city government fears agreeing to the request could encourage other claims for religious property, according to a diplomatic source. Shanghai's Jewish community has also sought greater use of remaining synagogues.
The Shanghai government has occasionally let worshippers attend another, smaller Russian Orthodox church, St. Nicholas, which was used as a restaurant and bar in the late 1990s.
Once bitter foes during the Cold War, Russia and China have increased cooperation in recent years to counterbalance US global dominance.
Church members said Shanghai gave permission for the service after lengthy negotiations brokered by the Russian government in the months before the Patriarch's trip. The ultra-conservative Patriarch Kirill is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I am confident that the participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian-Chinese relations will promote the cordiality of these relations, their sincerity and genuine friendship," the Patriarch said on Sunday.
During his China visit, Kirill held a service at the Russian Embassy in Beijing and travelled to the north-eastern city of Harbin, which also had a large Russian population before the Chinese Communists took power in 1949.